Decoding the Secrets of Buky Schwartz’s ‘The Big Video Chair’

The Big Video Chair (1987)

Installation photographs of The Big Video Chair, 1987. Image courtesy of the Estate of Buky Schwartz.

As the media archivist and co-director of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art, I am responsible for ensuring the long-term accessibility and usability of the museum’s time-based media artworks. Time-based media is a broad term that refers to film, video, audio, digital, and computer-based artworks or installation art with a specified duration and a dependency on changing technology. Collecting, preserving, and exhibiting artwork with technological dependencies can present unique challenges for museums. By nature, they are unstable, they don’t exist until they are installed, and they generally require additional documentation to support installation and preservation efforts.

CMOA’s collection is comprised of nearly 1,000 time-based media works, including numerous complex artworks that have dependencies on obsolete technology such as a cathode ray tub (CRT) monitor or a slide projector. Since I started working on this project last year, I’ve been drawn to Buky Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair (1987), a sculpture comprised of wooden beams, mirrors, and a closed-circuit television (CCTV) system. From a conservation perspective, it’s an interesting piece that poses several unique challenges: it is dependent on obsolete technology; the condition of the technical components are unknown; it was defaced the last time it was on display in 1988, leaving the condition of the affected parts unknown; and there is very little documentation available.

It’s pronounced BOO-kie

Buky Schwartz (1932-2009) was an Israeli-born sculptor who began working with video in the 1970s. initially as a way to document visitor interaction with his large-scale sculptures that required visitors to walk around the structure in order to understand what was real and what was an illusion. While video proved to be inadequate for documentation, Schwartz was drawn to how it distorted reality. By the late 70s he began creating video sculptures and large-scale environmental installations using CCTV, a technology more commonly known as video surveillance, which transmits a signal to a video camera to a specific set of monitors. Schwartz used CCTV to reveal how an environment or an object could be two-dimensional and three-dimensional simultaneously.

The Big Video Chair, 1987. Courtesy of the Estate of Buky Schwartz.

We know it’s big, but exactly how big is it?

One of the best descriptions of The Big Video Chair can be found in Buky Schwartz’s Videoconstructions, which was published by CMOA in 1992 and edited by the museum’s former film and video curator Bill Judson. Based on Judson’s description, we know that The Big Video Chair uses a CCTV system comprised of three CRT monitors. The camera is perched on top of one of the tallest wood beams and angled downward toward a constellation of five mirrors that are faced inward at varying angles. Affixed to the surface of the mirrors are short pieces of tape. From the camera’s perspective the pieces of tape reflected by the mirrors combine to form a coherent image of a chair. That image of the chair is played back on all three monitors, though source of the image is not immediately apparent.

Visitor interaction is integral to the understanding of Schwartz’s work, and in some instances, visitor participation is necessary to complete a piece. Knowing this and not being able to immediately understand the source of the chair image on the monitors, we can assume that Schwartz wanted visitors to be able to walk around structure, to be able to wave their hands in front of the mirrors, to decipher how all of the components fit together. This freedom with the work most likely lead to the tape on the mirrors being defaced the last time it was on view.

When we are able to unpack The Big Video Chair, as part of the Uncrated exhibition, it will provide us with an excellent opportunity to check the condition of the CRT monitors and CCTV system, to hopefully reassemble the wooden structure, and through a system of trial and error, reapply the tape. It will also allow us to create new installation documentation and to plan future exhibitions of the piece that maintain the visitor interaction the artist desired, yet protect it from being defaced.

Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks is on view in the Scaife Lounge at Carnegie Museum of Art from March 9, 2015–May 8, 2015. Learn the stories behind some intriguing works from CMOA’s collection and find out more about the people who buy, move, hang, clean, and care for them. Over the course of nine weeks, a team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators will be sharing their work with the public as they examine objects recently taken out of storage. Come back throughout the show and visit to see what new discoveries the team is making.